The police had confiscated a simple gold cross that a woman wore around her neck after pulling her over for a minor traffic violation. No contraband was reported, no criminal charges were filed, and no traffic ticket was issued. That’s how it went in dozens more cases involving cash, cars, and jewelry. A number of files contained slips of paper of a sort he’d never seen before. These were roadside property waivers, improvised by the district attorney, which threatened criminal charges unless drivers agreed to hand over valuables.
Whether this should be the law—whether, in the absence of a judicial finding of guilt, the state should be able to take possession of your property—has been debated since before American independence. In the Colonial period, the English Crown issued “writs of assistance” that permitted customs officials to enter homes or vessels and seize whatever they deemed contraband. As the legal scholars Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen have noted, these writs were “among the key grievances that triggered the American Revolution.” The new nation’s Bill of Rights would expressly forbid “unreasonable searches and seizures” and promise that no one would be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process.”
Even then, forfeiture remained an infrequent resort until 1984, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It established a special fund that turned over proceeds from forfeitures to the law-enforcement agencies responsible for them. Local police who provided federal assistance were rewarded with a large percentage of the proceeds, through a program called Equitable Sharing.
Revenue gains were staggering. At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993. (Last year, the department took in nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures, a record.)
Three years later, Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (cafra), requiring that federal prosecutors prove “a substantial connection between the property and the offense,” and allowing people who can prove themselves “innocent owners” to keep their property.